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Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ

How divisive artist Jordan Wolfson makes controversy an art form

With a new show in London titled ARTISTS FRIENDS RACISTS, we look at the ways in which shock, hysterics, and news headlines have fuelled Wolfson’s rise in the art world

Jordan Wolfson is an artist whose name inspires arguments. Consistently described as; “Shocking”, “Repellant” or “Terrifying” Wolfson’s career has grown in tandem with an adversarial relationship to the press. He’s an artist who is often criticised for his use of loaded imagery (the Star of David, Zwarte Piet) present in his work and an insistence on this as a formal choice, opposed to a political or social one. The lack of clarification allows the content of the work to exist entirely in the interpretation of the viewer, creating a paradigm in which Wolfson’s work and controversy become inseparable. 

Making art that shocks viewers has been proven an effective method of self-promotion, with writers and publications clamouring to get a hot take in – be it an edgy allegiance or the first jab, it’s an economy of exchange. In the post-news landscape, a need for clicks means takes get hotter – hysterics drive ad traffic, whatever side of the argument you fall on. These arguments introduced me to Wolfson’s work through consistently aggressive press descriptions, but I was confused to see it in the flesh. It seemed to fetishise the use of new or otherwise unutilised technologies in art, with the imagery or subjects just a device through which to explore what the artist considered untapped material or formal devices. A 2019 Guardian piece on the artist moved between discussing the morality of the work and the “state-of-the-art” technology (not to mention the production cost) that comes along with it. Spike talked about his robot; “artfully manufactured from expensive plastic designed for space travel” as being affecting because of its ability to reach the artist across the uncanny technological void, something the artist would likely agree with.  A couple of years ago, when speaking with Wolfson for the first time, I was surprised by the absolute lack of shock factor in his own descriptions of the work.

Wolfson’s output has often aimed to address the banality of violence and in doing so occasionally propagates certain types of imagery, imagery which is difficult to emancipate from a social or political context due to its semiotic relationship to contemporary popular culture. One of the works in which I found this most difficult to parse was 2014’s “Female Figure”. The work was Wolfson’s first time collaborating directly with a high-spec special effects studio and followed his signing with David Zwirner in 2013, with a fabrication budget described by Zwirner himself as a “disproportionate amount of money”. The work is a robotic approximation of a blonde woman in lingerie, with the face of a cartoonish witch, the torso of which is joined to a large mirror via a metal pole - The work is dirty, implying a sense of overuse or that it hasn’t been cared for. Twisting and gyrating, she switches between looking in the mirror and turning to address the viewer, speaking phrases like “Touch is love” and “My Mother is dead, my Father is dead, I’m gay, I’d like to be a poet, this is my house” in Wolfson’s voice. 

“Female Figure” reads as a critique of female vanity. Fixed to the mirror with what that looks like a stripper pole, humping at itself and dancing exaggeratedly to music from Lady Gaga to Robin Thicke. Whilst using his own voice in the work could be an attempt at androgenising or pushing towards gender dualism in the work, it reads more like the artist’s own critique. Phrases sound adopted from reality tv, Instagram captions and faux-motivational quotes, they are reproduced with a degree of contempt. As a work, it’s hard to emancipate it from the opinion of the person who made it – It’s too pointed. It feels so close to the kind of rhetoric espoused by Instagram users with more numbers than letters in their handle, commenting relentlessly on photos of women. If Wolfson’s aim was to make a physical model of the anonymised misogyny present in social media, he did a good job of it – however, this level of separation is challenging when an artist concerned in particular with form and materiality chooses to include their own voice in work. 

With that being said (and for all the critiques of the work, including a Frieze article from last year in which Wolfson is described as “an asshole”) this work doesn’t feel dangerous. It feels overly focused on showing off technology, it feels like form over function and at times almost farcical – but never threatening. 

One thing that this work did do was take advantage of a moment: As greater consciousness of social morality and the cultural or political implications of artworks became the norm, Wolfson produced something with a rumoured budget of around half a million dollars that did precisely the opposite and did so for one of the world’s most prestigious galleries. The work inspired controversy because it points towards an ugly male perception of female vanity but also because of the platform on which it was produced, ultimately leading to its purchase by collectors Eli and Edyth Broad in 2014.

Moving forward to 2017, Wolfson again makes art world headlines with “Real Violence”, a VR work in which the viewer becomes an onlooker to the artist beating another man with a baseball bat on a deserted digital New York street. Viewers and critics described the work as “Nightmare inducing” and “Disturbing” but another thought seemingly shared by some viewers was the ridiculousness of it. For its pomp and grandeur, “Real Violence” is far from real. It’s not a representation of or even an approximation of reality – it’s no more threatening than Grand Theft Auto or Goodfellas, perhaps even less so. With no narrative in place to provide context, the viewer who isn’t shocked by the aesthetics of the work is left to characterise it themselves. 

However, this work does manage to separate Wolfson from the confused position presented in “Female Figure”. “Real Violence” is less complex, more minimal and more personal. For me, the work speaks to an anxiety I’ve rarely seen addressed in recent artworks and one that leans further towards those presenting as men than women. It reminded me of getting beat up, of fighting and losing, of that feeling of tension and (perhaps embarrassingly) emasculation for having done so. It didn’t enact trauma, instead, empathy. It made me think about walking across the estate I lived on at the time, late at night and aware of the kids (two under 20) who’d been murdered there. It reflected an anxiety that I imagine is present in everyone but that manifests differently in young men – bravado, machismo, fear and a sense of threat, overflowing in an act of violence inflicted on or by the viewer. In spite of press response to the work, it did succeed in inciting an emotional experience for me.

The artist was heavily criticised in a discussion centred on “Real Violence” during a 2017 screening at the new museum. Audience members and recently appointed Rhizome editor Aria Dean quizzed Wolfson on his decision to portray both the perpetrator and victim as white men. Wolfson responded, saying:

“If I made the decision that a white guy beating a black guy, or if it was a black guy beating a white guy, suddenly the information in the artwork would be carried and transmitted, and then hypothetically would take the work to another type of narrative path that wasn’t part of my intention.”

This decision to remove political discussion from his work is indicative of a trend in the way that Wolfson presents; refusing to provide context for his work and instead, discussing formal or material choices, seemingly surprised by viewers and critics who are unable or unwilling to do the same. It’s also indicative of a critical desire to impress dialogue into works that it may not be present in, a key issue in the media handling of his work.

Represented by David Zwirner and Sadie Coles, having shown at the Tate Modern and Stedelijk Museum as well as The Whitney Biennial and other high-profile institutional exhibitions – Wolfson has not been hampered by the controversy. Instead, critics feed the flames around the artist, placing a level of power on the works that may not naturally exist otherwise. It’s easy to envision a world in which something like “Real Violence” (if not “Female Figure”) went entirely unnoticed if produced by a less buzzy artist. The work, as it has gone on, feels like a direct reaction to his detractors – a form of media manipulation that induces works made with the intention of creating negative media response but which remain banal enough to allow the artist to continue showing in major public institutions. All of this is underpinned by a high production sheen, bells and whistles to draw people in and an all-important atmosphere of engineered outrage.

Having just opened, Wolfson’s third solo show with Sadie Coles HQ entitled ARTISTS FRIENDS RACISTS directly represents the relationship the artist has with controversy – and how essential an ingredient this controversy is in maintaining his position within the art world. Almost farcical, the title is a departure from pointing towards the potential contention and instead, saying it outright. It includes an installation of holographic images on 20 fans, the loud droning of which alludes to an exaggerated idea of tension or anxiety. In one half of the show, Wolfson seems to embrace the ridiculousness with this work, whilst remaining true to his previous attempts at mirroring the world. Images of cop cars, firefighters, protestors, robots attempting to walk, people in blackface as Zwarte Piet (a recent controversy in the Netherlands sparked around tradition and national identity in the portrayal of the character), cartoon hearts, the Star of David, planet Earth giving the viewer a thumbs up, and the words STRESS, ANXIETY, and FEAR animated as crashing stones. An early Time Out review of the show described it as “Threatening”, but it’s anything but – it feels absolutely ambivalent. The decontextualisation of the images doesn’t provide a new perspective from which to discuss them, it’s more a parody of a black-pill newsreel, the kind of work that would induce greater anxiety if it were a YouTube video set to gabba than the high tech installation presented here.

“Wolfson has not been hampered by the controversy. Instead, critics feed the flames around the artist, placing a level of power on the works that may not naturally exist otherwise”

It feels like Wolfson giving us exactly what we’ve asked for, or maybe just what we’ve been saying he was doing the whole time. It’s hard to decide whether ARTISTS FRIENDS RACISTS is making fun of us, whether it’s the artist leaning into the role he’s been given by the media or a genuine expression of nihilism. The other works on show are a series of photos of Wolfson as a child, mounted on large metal ovals, resembling golden eggs: the embryonic development of the artist. They seem to aim to remind the viewer that Wolfson is a person, with a childhood, and a life and feelings – enacting an intimacy often actively removed from his work. It feels like the artist humanising himself, taking ownership of his own existence. 

In the duality of this exhibition, it could be argued that we’re beginning to see cracks in Wolfson’s relationship to controversy – the one that brought him the art-world notoriety on which he trades. 

Including examples of blackface (albeit ones with complex cultural context) in an exhibition titled ARTISTS FRIENDS RACISTS seems a lazy means of courting controversy in a world which this exhibition may prove is beginning to tire of outrage. The seemingly endless manipulatable relationship the art press has to controversy is tired, long replete of potential for dialogue. Over the last few years, discussions around Wolfson’s work have been dominated by their forebearers mentioned throughout this article, his career heavily reported on, and his prominence a reflection of that reportage. The strongest opinions define the dominant narrative in this instance, save for platitudes in the like of Time Out and The Guardian, and as such the context of the work (allegedly removed by the artist) is filled in by critics. Looking retrospectively at Wolfson, it feels almost like his artistic license has been handed piece by piece to the press in exchange for continued coverage and consistent discussion.

The post-pomo contro-marketing in his most recent show is a cheap way for an artist to encourage writers to take to their soapbox – markedly tricking viewers into ignoring the reality of careers like this one, in which the artist becomes inextricable from the press around them.

We tried to contact the artist to make a comment about their relationship to art media and the way it has shaped development in their practice, however, he was unavailable to comment. ARTISTS FRIENDS RACISTS runs at Sadie Coles HQ until 29 February 2020